We can make sense of our national life, if sense can be made of it, in two ways: top-down (Oval Office), bottom-up (front porch). Since few of us get to the top, however we might define that peak, it’s easier to pay attention to what one observes as one lives an ordinary life during, let’s say, an average summer day in Erie County.
Over the past few years, as I’ve made my round of chores (not climbing Mount Everest, but important nonetheless), I’ve noticed improved “signage” all over the place. These elegantly carved signs, usually dark green with gold lettering, make us feel better, somehow, when we have a dental appointment or must see our accountant about an audit with the IRS.
And, along with this trend, I’ve also noticed enhanced gas station landscaping. Now one can look at lavish blooming rhododendron as one fills up at prices that makes it easier to pay (extravagantly) for a drive for a day trip to, say, Golden Hill State Park or the Zoar Valley where one can be, as Emerson says, “embosomed for a season in nature.”
Suddenly, it seems, just about everyone is redoing their porches, decks and lawns so they can sit out in the good old summertime. Baskets of trailing fuchsia now appear where before there were only rusty hooks, and Adirondack chairs are as omnipresent as hula hoops once were. Gazing balls, Van Gogh-yellow pinwheels and cobalt blue bird baths (at least mine) transform ordinary streets (at least mine) into festive places (until winter comes).
These small “local” changes represent signs of greater changes in Buffalo as the waterfront and downtown are being transformed in exciting, surprising and futuristic ways. What does this trend in Buffalo tell us about our national life, if we take the bottom-up approach to history (and since we’re sitting on those Adirondack chairs, it’s a reasonable approach to take)? I’m not a professional historian, but here are a few speculations.
With the increasing disparity between rich and middle class, to say nothing of the truly impoverished, many people find it difficult to pay for a vacation that seemed affordable even 10 years ago. A week in New York City just about requires that one have a trust fund. Sitting out and listening to a Mets or Yankees game is more economical.
But there may be deeper reasons. Is it possible that we’re beginning to grow weary of television and social media? Is it possible that we’ve decided to talk face to face (not Facebook) to one another? A friend of mine even told me about a neighbor who cut down a hedge so they could see one another.
And is it possible that we’re more comfortable staying at home precisely because Buffalo is on the move and moving upwards with the dream of a medical complex as stellar as the Mayo Clinic and a waterfront as dynamic as Toronto’s?
If my street (paradise for any of the world’s displaced peoples) is any indication, sunbathing on a chaise longue surrounded by flower-filled urns has replaced, if only for a season, a barge trip through the Loire Valley, wine-tasting in Napa, whale-watching off the Alaskan coast.
If this all sounds fanciful, chalk it up to my sitting out too long in our summer sun – when it doesn’t rain.